Our parents teach us so much— from how to practice our religion to how to make our beds. They teach us how to celebrate birthdays and how to prepare our food. They teach us how to spend our time and how to spend our money. And while they’re busy teaching us all this, our spouse’s parents are busy teaching their kids too.

“My mother wasn’t into fashion or jewelry, although we could have afforded it. She preferred to spend on others. She made sure we kids lacked for nothing, and when we grew up, she’d spend a fortune on flying us all in so that the family could spend time together.”

After people pay for basic necessities, they decide how to spend any remaining funds. Some people will allot “extra” money to beautify the basics: better quality food, better furniture, more clothing, more luxurious transportation, and so on. Others will enhance lifestyle options: more vacations, more travel, more preventative medical care, more prepared food and restaurants. Some will allot the extra funds to savings, investments, and retirement plans. Some will buy more “toys.”

“It’s true my husband’s mother didn’t care for fancy clothes or jewelry. Personally, I think it’s because she had no aesthetic sense. She clearly had no idea how to decorate a home. I’m not faulting her — she was a generous, kind woman. But she and I are cut from different cloths.

“My own mother was very into having a beautiful home and presenting herself in a beautiful way. She taught all of us to do the same. She never left the house without makeup and jewelry, she enlisted the help of an interior decorator for every room in our home. She taught me to notice the little details. Is it my fault that my husband’s mother was so different?” “My husband finds it difficult — almost impossible — to spend money on what he calls ‘superficial appearances.’ ‘Money is for family and charity,’ he tells me. We’ve been struggling with our differences for 20 years!”

Respecting Differences

No two families spend money the exact same way. The trick is to realize that spending preferences are, in fact, preferences. Once you get married, you must understand that neither your parents’ preferences nor your spouse’s preferences are “right.” It’s not morally right or wrong to spend money on take-out food, nor is it morally right or wrong to spend money on a high-end hotel versus a more modest accommodation.

When one has $2,000 available, it’s not more correct to save it than to spend it, to spend it on traveling rather than on new clothes, to spend it on jewelry rather than on a paint job. However, we often feel that our personal money style is the “right” one, that our own choices make the most (or only!) sense, and that our partner’s preferences are faulty, foolish, or fundamentally flawed.

“My wife doesn’t understand that I have to protect our family. Does she really think that I wouldn’t like a nice new car? Of course I would! But I’m saving up for our children’s weddings and my retirement. I don’t want to end up like my parents, who had to live off of their children and community funds when my father became ill.”

A Good Money Talk

Although money can be a difficult subject to discuss, it must be discussed. Remaining calm and respectful and listening more than talking will help communication be productive and safe. Find out why your partner wants to spend money a certain way, and explain your own priorities as well. 

In a good money talk, we learn a lot about ourselves and our partner. Be sure to make your spouse feel heard and understood by taking time to summarize and validate what’s said — even when you personally disagree. Keep in mind that yours is only one view, not the view of the subject. Act on your spouse’s wishes at least half the time and request that your spouse act on yours proportionally.

Imposing one’s own money values on a spouse can be controlling, hurtful, and insensitive — and has the potential to harm the marriage. No matter who earns the money, both adults must work together to decide how it will be spent — and therefore both need to be well informed. 

Discuss how much money is available. What are the necessary, nonnegotiable expenses? How much is left over for discretionary spending? And finally, how shall we spend it?